Last time I tried to analyze Richard’s argument in ch. 22 that his view preserves monotheism. This time, I critically evaluate the argument. Is it sound?
It goes like this:
- There can be at most one omnipotent being. (premise)
- No being can have more than one token of any property. (premise)
- At most one token of omnipotence can exist. (2,3)
- Any token of omnipotence is the same as any token of divinity. (divine simplicity)
- At most one token of divinity can exist. (3,4)
- No token property can be had by more than one being. (premise)
- There is at most one God. (5,6)
What shall we make of this argument? Why believe premise 1? Richard says,
…if it is agreed that omnipotence can do everything, it will be able to carry out with ease what any other power would not be able to do. For this reason it is clear that only one omnipotence can exist. (ch. 22, p. 394)
I have a couple of problems with this. First, we ought not think of divine power as the ability to do anything. God can’t lie, or torture innocent kittens merely for the fun of it. But maybe “everything” can be restricted in some way. Let’s suppose Richard is assuming that “everything” doesn’t include what is contradictory or intrinsically wrong.
What, then is he thinking? Richard thinks it obviously true that if a being is omnipotent, then for any other being, whatever this other being can’t do, the omnipotent one can do. Now, suppose there were two omnipotent beings – call them Lenny and Squiggy. By the above principle, it must be true of Lenny, that whatever Squiggy can’t do, Lenny can. But, there is nothing Squiggy can’t do – he too is omnipotent. Richard thinks this scenario is incoherent. But why? I suspect that medieval logic may be to blame here, but I’ll take another stab at what he might be thinking.
If any being is omnipotent, or unlimited in power, then necessarily, there is no more powerful being. It seems one could be omnipotent and be the only real being – just imagine an all-powerful Lenny, alone in reality. But if there are other beings, and one is omnipotent, none of them will be more powerful than you. So add Squiggy to the picture – it logically follows, from Lenny’s omnipotence, that Squiggy isn’t more powerful than Lenny. But we can’t infer that Squiggy is limited in power – for all we’ve said, he might also be omnipotent. So it seems that there’s nothing incoherent about there being two omnipotent beings – at least, Richard has done nothing to establish this.
We shouldn’t build into the definition of “omnipotent” than there actually are other beings, whose power is surpassed.
One might think that more than one omnipotent being is impossible for other reasons. One might worry about multiple omnipotent beings possibly thwarting one another. Richard Swinburne argues that there could be multiple omnipotent beings who necessarily never clash in their choices and actions.
In any case, I think Richard of St. Victor’s argument falters at premise 1.
Does it have any other problems? Various metaphysicians would deny either 2 or 6, for various reasons.
Many philosophers, like me, do not affirm 4. To be divine, and to be omnipotent, are two different ways of being, or if you like two different properties. While it is conceivable that there could be a being which satisfies the concepts or terms “omnipotent” and “divine” because of one and the same aspect of itself, I think most theistic philosophers have committments that rule this out. That is, most theistic philosophers hold views about God that imply the falsity of the traditional simplicity doctrine. For instance, they think of God as having multiple properties, and as having non-essential ones. And many of us have grave doubts about the ultimate consistency of the divine simplicity thesis. Look at what Richard says near the end of ch. 22:
…like omnipotence, there can be only one divine essence. Not only is what each person is completely the same; but each one is what each other is. And so, supreme simplicity is in each; true and supreme unity is in all together; and marvelous identity is everywhere if you pay attention well. (ch. 22, p. 395)
It’s hard to know what to make of all this talk of identity or sameness. It would be incoherent for Richard to assert that each person is numerically the same as the others, for (1) he holds them to differ, e.g. in origin, and (2) he is clearly thinking of them as many – and yet as in some sense a unity. It’s clear that he thinks there’s only one token of omnipotence, and of deity between them. It would seem to follow that they are numerically one (at least, if we accept 6 above). But he can’t be saying that. Really, the resulting image is a big blur, however marvellous it may be.
If I’m right that he trying to assuage a concern about monotheism in this part of the book, he doesn’t get very far.